30 years since the Timex dispute: ‘From lambs to lions’

29 January marked the thirtieth anniversary of the start of the historic 1993 battle of Timex workers in Dundee. The almost eight-month-long dispute was the most significant industrial struggle in the history of the city. The actions of these courageous workers have important lessons for today, when mass trade union struggle is needed more than ever. We carry here an edit of an article written by Socialist Party Scotland member Jim McFarlane, whose mum Laura was a member of the Timex strike committee.

The Timex Corporation had been in Dundee since 1946, and generations of Dundee families had worked there over the years, including my own. At its height, 5,000 workers were employed at three different sites across the city.

In December 1992 the company proposed to lay off up to 150 workers, nearly half the workforce, for a period of six months. Management handpicked union activists to be among those laid off. A ballot for strike action resulted in a 92% vote in favour. Requests by the engineering workers’ union, AEEU, for negotiations were ignored by the company, and on 29 January the workers began all-out strike action.

Locked out

Despite an offer to return to work to negotiate, management responded that any return to work was dependent on the workers taking a pay cut and massive cuts to their pensions. When they refused, the entire workforce was locked out and sacked. But Timex Corporation had seriously underestimated the determination of this predominantly female workforce. 

Timex attempted to use the courts to enforce the Tory anti-trade union laws, to ensure the strikers were restricted to having six people on their picket line. This was defied by the strikers arguing that their picket lines were in fact mass meetings and demonstrations.

In March 1993, a demonstration of 10,000 marched through city centre streets. Trade unionists came from across Britain.

At a mass picket the following Monday, the open collaboration between Timex and Tayside police was exposed for all to see. As the scab workforce buses were forced through an angry and determined picket line, the police indiscriminately arrested noisy but peaceful pickets. All those arrested, despite not being found guilty of any crime, were handed exclusion orders and banned from going anywhere near the factory.

Massive support

There was a conscious attempt in the media to portray the strikers and their supporters as troublemakers. But the strikers had overwhelming support from the working class of Dundee and right across the country, clearly expressed through the donations of money, food and clothing that flooded in.

Despite opposition and obstruction from the national AEEU leadership, the local leaders played a positive role. As well as continuing to picket the factory, the strike committee and wider sacked workforce developed a mass boycott campaign of Timex products and those shops that sold them, as well as any local business that supplied goods to the scab factory.

Strike committee

The strike committee sent delegations to speak to meetings of workers across Britain and all over the world. Speakers went to Ireland, Norway, France, and to the Timex headquarters in the United States, among others. They came back with messages of support and financial aid.

In April, another mass picket was turned into a partial city-wide strike, as a 6,000-strong crowd of workers from other Dundee workplaces marched to the factory gates and then took part in a demonstration.

In May, the statutory 90-day sacking notice was due to expire, and Timex would be free to rehire some of its sacked workers. This was an attempt to break the unity of the strikers. At a mass meeting, the strikers made it clear that no one was going back unless they all were on the same terms and conditions as they were when the dispute began.

On 17 May, one of the largest pickets Scotland had ever seen took place. 5,000 people assembled. Production in the scab factory ground to a halt. Timex and the police had secretly arranged for the scab buses to arrive 90 minutes earlier than normal. The police stopped buses of trade unionists who had travelled from all over the country on the main roads leading to Dundee. 

Despite this, the road leading to the gate of the factory was blocked by pickets and it took the police over 20 minutes to force it 50 yards into the factory. All the while, more and more pickets were arriving. The police were forced to concede that they were unable to get scabs in cars and vans through, and they were turned away.

One-day general strike

Through their own experience, and through discussion with socialists such as Scottish Militant Labour (SML – the forerunner of Socialist Party Scotland), the strikers wanted to transform the overwhelming support they had from other trade unionists into concrete action, in the form of a one-day general strike.

Through pressure from below, the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) was pushed into calling an all-Scotland shop stewards conference to discuss what support could be given. This was cut short when discussion turned to the calling of a one-day general strike, as the leadership feared the Tory anti-union laws could be used against them.

Speaking at a Militant Labour Rally at Wembley Conference Centre in London in June 1993, Sandra Walker, a Timex striker, said: “We need national trade union support. If our forefathers had listened to talk about legality, we’d have no trade unions”.

The national leaders of the AEEU and STUC did little to build wider strike action. In contrast, the strikers had fought this multinational to a standstill.

The factory manager was forced to resign as he was unable to deliver a pliable non-union factory to his bosses in the United States.

John Kydd Jnr, local AEEU convenor, said early on in the dispute that there could only be two possible outcomes: the full reinstatement of all workers, or the factory would have to be closed, as a non-union scab factory would not be tolerated.

The failure of national trade union leaders to organise the much-needed solidarity strike action meant the dispute reached a stalemate.

The willingness to continue fighting among the strikers was still strong. The company were forced to concede they could not win, and the factory closed in August 1993. The strikers and local union leaders had given their all for eight months, but had to accept redundancy terms.

30 years later, workers are again being told to accept pay cuts, job losses, and job insecurity. A key lesson is that if 340 workers in Dundee could take on and fight to a standstill a huge corporation like Timex, along with their allies in the police and the media, just think what a 24-hour general strike involving all workers could achieve.

Build fighting unions

A key task is to build fighting democratic trade unions at local and national levels, alongside the building of a new mass workers’ party that can represent the interests of working-class people.

Sandra Walker said: “Women are at the forefront of this struggle, and have changed from lambs to lions.” My mum, Laura, was on the strike committee after working in the factory for 20 years. Before those events, she would never have seen herself travelling the country speaking to audiences of hundreds about their battle and calling for solidarity action. Many others would say the same.

It’s important to take up the idea in some capitalist media that the overwhelmingly female workforce was somehow just puppets of male trade union reps and officials. Officials, both local and national, were men, but there were women shop stewards, and the strike committee was made up from the whole workforce, with women fully represented.

Scottish Militant Labour

John Kydd Jnr was asked for an honest assessment of the role of SML in the dispute. He commented: “The role of SML in the Timex dispute enhanced the class emphasis of the dispute. Their solidarity, support and encouragement helped to bolster the morale of the pickets… made sure of national recognition, and raised the dispute to greater heights. Those who condemned the support of SML failed to recognise the class nature of the dispute, and by their actions aided and abetted the Engineering Employers Federation and the company”.

This is an extract from the full article at socialistpartyscotland.org.uk